“Whatever happened? A breach in the very unity of life, a biological paradox, an abomination, an absurdity, an exaggeration of disastrous nature. Life had overshot its target, blowing itself apart.”
That’s the core thesis of the Norwegian philosopher Peter Zapffe’s essay The Last Messiah, in which he explains the nature of human suffering as an unintended byproduct of evolution.
According to Zapffe, we’ve over-evolved beyond the requirement of our natural environment.
He contends that while all animals in nature feel pain and respond to it, only humans are fully conscious enough to grapple with the existential questions that so often cause despair.
The degree of angst and confusion we feel has no survival value, and yet, we’re cursed with it. Our consciousness — which is what makes us human — is its own worst enemy, and the realization of all of this puts us in a state of recurring neurosis. As Zapffe himself put it:
“So there he stands with his visions, betrayed by the universe, in wonder and fear. The beast knew fear as well, in thunderstorms and on the lion’s claw. But man became fearful of life itself — indeed, of his very being.. In the beast, suffering is self-confined, in man, it knocks holes into a fear of the world and a despair of life..
But as he stands before imminent death, he grasps its nature also, and the cosmic import of the step to come. His creative imagination constructs new, fearful prospects behind the curtain of death, and he sees that even there is no sanctuary found. And now he can discern the outline of his biologicocosmic terms: He is the universe’s helpless captive, kept to fall into nameless possibilities.
From this moment on, he is in a state of relentless panic.”
Isolation, Anchoring, and Distraction
The existence of this cosmic panic, as Zapffe calls it, brings with it an interesting question.
If we really are plagued with the effects of over-evolution, why do we continue to endure? Why hasn’t our capacity for extended suffering deemed us unfit for survival in the world?
Zapffe’s answer points to the fact that we have developed a collection of both conscious and unconscious mechanisms that allow us to limit the reach of our consciousness in daily life.
The first is what he calls isolation. It’s a defense mechanism that allows us to repress thoughts and feelings that are either destructive or unpleasant. Instead of thinking through every single problematic aspect of our life, we eventually learn to tune some of them out.
The second is anchoring. We have the capacity to create goals and values, and we can use them to provide a reference point which protects us from the darker areas of consciousness. It provides a level of consistency which acts as a foundation for our day to day actions.
The third is distraction. Rather than confining ourselves to the inner world of suffering, we instead use the external reality to temporarily impress our attention away from the mind.
While all of these mechanisms are functional in everyone to some degree, they are not exactly long-term solutions. In fact, these are what Zapffe called repressional mechanisms.
Rather than dealing with the fact that maybe your relationships aren’t as good as you’d like them to be, or that what you do on a day to day basis isn’t all that meaningful to you, your mind instead chooses to turn a blind eye. It doesn’t deal with the problem but defers it.
Although these repressional mechanisms allow for endurance, none of them are going to completely turn your life from negative to positive. That requires something a little different.
The Way of Conscious Sublimation
There is a fourth and final mechanism available to us. Rather than repressing the negative, this solution is an act of transformation. It harnesses the bad to fuel the creation of the good.
The idea is to use our creative and productive expression to engage the negative in inspiring a whole that is greater. Instead of blunting our feelings, we choose to give them a new form.
This is the way of sublimation. It demands a more conscious effort than the other ways of battling consciousness because it relies on our ability to take the pain of living and turn it into something that transcends us. Something that contains an ounce of beauty and meaning.
The product could be anything from art to philosophy to comedy to drama to an adventure.
It’s often been said that some of the most valuable contributions to humanity have come from those who have struggled with some aspect of their own mind. According to Zapffe, this makes sense. After all, you have to overcomesomething to create something else of value.
You can’t have a product without a process preceding it. If you did, it would be meaningless.
We often see pain and struggle as conditions opposite to beauty and meaning. We tend to treat them as a dichotomy. Except that’s generally not the right way to look at it.
Anything aesthetically valuable is a product of feeling, just as suffering is a product of feeling. These feeling aren’t divided. Rather, they are intervened. They compliment each other.
The depth of consciousness that Zapffe warns us about is the same one that produces the complexity inherent in art, the simplicity we see in science, and the meaning in philosophy.
If we didn’t have suffering, we also wouldn’t have sublimation; or the absence of suffering.
All You Need to Know
In many ways, The Last Messiah is a brave essay. Mostly due to its unchecked pessimism.
Peter Zapffe ends it with the conclusion that humanity is doomed under its own suffering until the day that we stop reproducing. The last messiah is the one who will inspire us to see that.
Yet, Zapffe himself acknowledges that writing the essay in the first place was itself an act of engaging with sublimation. He saw the way, and he took it, just as the rest of us can and do.
Whether or not consciousness is a problematic byproduct of evolution, it’s a fascinating idea, and it does put into context how we view the existential angst we face as human beings.
We all deal with the cosmic panic in different ways and to different extents, but each of us has repressional mechanisms that allow us to continue on and get by. Isolation, anchoring, and distraction are tools that allow us to live beyond our mind, and they provide stability.
They don’t, however, deal with the negative. All they do is simply push it to the other side.
To fully transform from the negative to positive, like Zapffe, we need to consciously choose the way of sublimation. We need to dance with the pain of life until it expresses beauty.
With art, with comedy, with adventure, and with anything else we use to express ourselves, we can take an initially unpleasant thought or feeling and overcome it to produce meaning.
If there is such a thing as suffering, there is something that isn’t suffering. It’s on us to find it.